Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Statistik

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Wirtschaftswissen­schaftliche Fakultät | Statistik | Teaching | Summer term 2013 | What is statistics? - From a historical perspective (SE)

What is statistics? - From a historical perspective (SE)

The history of statistics can be tracked back to the 17th century, when William Petty completed the Down Survey, a mapping of Ireland by the English scientist. This first application is a clear example of how statistics arose: The state was in need to collect data to administer the people and the economy. This fact is underlined by the original meaning of the word statistics. It steams from the Latin "statisticum" meaning state affairs and was introduced by Gottfried Achenwall as "Statistik" into the German language. In the 19th century the newly discovered techniques were applied to different fields and the scope of applications was broadened.


The statistical understanding was increased step by step. The probability theory was first discussed by Christiaan Huygens in 1657 and the theory of errors by Roger Cotes in 1722 (published posthumous). Important advances were made by, among others, Jakob Bernouli, Abraham de Moivre, Thomas Simpson and Pierre-Simon Laplace to reach Andrey Kolmogorov's probability axioms in the 20th century.

In this formation process of the science statistics some of the prominent figures studied or worked as researchers at Humboldt-Universität. For example Karl Pearson, Hermann Otto Hirschfeld and Wassily Hoeffding studied at the former Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, whereas Ladislaus Bortkiewicz, Richard von Mises and John von Neumann became members of the scientific staff.

In consequence of the important contributions of single researcher, the aim of this seminar is to produce a collective biography of the most important representatives of statistics - a bio-bibliographical source book of the most important statisticians. Therefore, an active participation in the seminar is required.


  • David, H.A., Edwards, A.W.F. (2001), Annotated Readings in the History of Statistics, Springer
  • Hald, A. (1998), A History of Mathematical Statistics from 1750 to 1930, Wiley
  • Hald, A. (2003), A History of Probability and Statistics and Their Applications Before 1750, Wiley
  • Hald, A. (2006), A History of Parametric Statistical Inference from Bernoulli to Fischer, 1713-1935. Springer
  • Johnson, N.L., Johnson, E. (1997), Leading Personalities in Statistical Sciences: From the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Wiley
  • Stigler, S.M. (1990) The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty Before 1900, Harvard University Press
  • Stigler, S.M. (2002) Statistics on the Table: The History of Statistical Concepts and Methods, Harvard University Press